Scholar Nehama Leibowitz points out in Studies in Devarim ("Deuteronomy") that all "the main principles of Judaism – the prohibition of idolatry, the principles of the unity, love and fear of God, the Decalogue, the duty of studying Torah – all are given an honorable mention in this sidra, Vaetchanan."
Much of the fifth book of the Torah can be read as Moses' farewell address to the Jewish people. And what a magnificent series of speeches and exhortations we hear from this leader, who once claimed to be not a man of words, but of "slow speech and slow tongue."
For 40 years he led our people out from the bitterness of bondage in Egypt to freedom and Mount Sinai, and now, to the very border of the Promised Land. Over and over again, he reminds us that we are a covenant people, bound in a unique and special relation to one another and to God.
But it is the opening words of this week's portion that prove so timely.
In this part of Moses' talk, he reminds the people of his heartfelt wish to enter the Land of Israel with them. "I pleaded with the Lord … , 'Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan – that good hill country and the Lebanon. But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account, and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, 'Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!' "
We learn in Midrash Rabbah that Moses prayed 515 times – based on the gematriya of vaetchanan, which means "I pleaded" – for God to let him enter Israel. Each time, God rejected Moses' prayer.
'A Consequence of Ignorance'
In an essay published some years ago in Tradition, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik suggests that the problem lay with the people, who did not join Moses in prayer.
"The Midrash states that had the community joined Moses in his prayer, God would have granted Moses his request. He [God] would not have rejected the prayer of the many," writes the rabbi. "Unfortunately, the community did not understand the secret of the prayer by the many. As a consequence of their ignorance, Moses died in the desert."
He teaches a powerful lesson. Our tradition encourages and even demands personal prayer. But communal prayer and the act of praying for each other remain even more powerful.
It's fine to pray for individual needs, hopes and dreams. These prayers, however, only reach the gates of heaven when they're joined with the hopes and dreams of others in the community.
Take the Misheberach prayer, for example. Individuals rise and share the names of loved ones for whom they pray for healing, and then, in some congregations, everyone rises and stands as a community. Together, we pray for the healing of all our loved ones.
Vaetchanan is read the Shabbat following Tisha B'Av, the Jewish day of mourning the loss of the First and Second Temples, and other calamities that happened on that day throughout Jewish history.
Our sages teach that one of the reasons that the Second Temple was destroyed was because of sinat chinam, the senseless hatred of Jews by Jews. The Jewish community of the Second Temple refused to hear the prayers and dreams of one another. They were solely engaged in personal prayer, and did not hear the cries of others.
This week, Israel begins disengagement from Gaza and four communities in the West Bank. Let us listen to the pain and anguish of all sides, and let us all pray for peace.
Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.